You inhale. The feeling of new air mixes with unknown space as you first place one foot and then the other onto the path ahead. A lightness tickles your stomach, curling upwards and into your heart. It tugs at the outermost threads of your mind and trembles, massaging the gray area that arises between excitement and edginess. At once delighted and supernaturally aware of your surroundings, you begin to sink into the unfamiliar. The journey is afoot.
Anyone who has traveled frequently knows this feeling – you plan, you execute, you take the leap, and somewhere along the way, your brain and body slip into an actively joyful, hyper-curious state of being that persists for the length of the excursion like a friendly shadow, nudging you along. The ten year old cartoonishly flopping a ball of ice cream onto the pavement in Rome and the hustler dressed as a sadhu on the banks of the Ganges seem to take on a hilarious deeper meaning about the messiness of human life and society as a whole, rather than veering into ordinary urban existence, the way traffic or long wait times at Starbucks might.
There is a state of mind that seamlessly blends positivity and awareness that I feel is pervasive when we travel, yet tends to elude us in day-to-day life. This invigorating sense of curiosity, coupled with a benefit-of-the-doubt mentality, allows us to laugh through rougher moments when things go wrong on a trip while maintaining a sense of wonder as we traverse new continents in search of hidden treasures. I often think this mindset is what calls so many of us back into whatever version of the unknown currently holds our fantasies hostage – whether it be a road trip across the American Southwest, a spin around the ferris wheel in Prater Park, or the summit of Annapurna.
I’ll confess, I am utterly addicted to this phenomenon. The moment I descended the shuttle stairs into the airport on a recent journey to Peru, my thoughts lifted, and the fuzzy joy of people-watching crept over me like a delicious scent I had suddenly stumbled into. It is precisely the reason that I have championed myself as a diehard weekend warrior, blasting out into the depths of the wilderness nearly every Friday night to discover what secrets the mountains hold for me this go-around.
I think that backpacking, like traveling, scratches hidden coils in the brain that are turned on by perpetual newness. It forces you to roll with the punches when things go awry and, conversely, delights you with innumerable moments of serendipity that will keep a smile plastered to your face for days. Becoming a wilderness weekend warrior has allowed me to keep the travel vibes alive year-round, because I’m constantly treating my brain to the challenge of embracing the unknown. I mitigate as much risk as possible, but at the end of the day, I’m training myself how to keep smiling when my feet cramp or I fall into a cactus, because I sincerely believe that elected discomfort can build stronger, happier, more self-aware humans.
Unexpected sucker-punches are going to happen to all of us, and nobody leaves this spaceship alive. The best we can do is to laugh and wander and coach our minds to veer towards awe when in unfamiliar territory. I’d like to implore you to take more weekend trips, to stretch the limits of your curiosity, and to do it all on a shoestring budget. The pleasure that tickles the brains of frequent travelers is not relegated to the wealthy. Reach out and grab a puff of that luminosity from the wide open sky.